Does the NIV translation fail to reflect the “new perspective on Paul”?

I recently heard from a reader who became interested through this blog in The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that can be read without the distractions of chapter and verse numbers, etc.  However, he was initially concerned about the NIV translation, used in that edition, because, he said, “of an article I read which makes me worried that the translation of Paul’s epistles is too much in the Reformed tradition and ignores the last 50 years of Pauline scholarship.”  I think those concerns can be addressed.

At issue here is the so-called “new perspective on Paul,” which is a vast and complicated discussion, but which involves questions such as whether Paul was saying that our salvation comes to us from God completely apart from works (the Reformation emphasis), or whether Paul was saying only that distinctively Jewish observances such as the Sabbath are not required of Gentiles, but that God expects everyone to produce good works as a result of their salvation.  Since the real question here is about the NIV translation, I won’t go into the “new perspective” any further, except to observe its implications for some specific translation choices.

In a 2003 public lecture, N.T. Wright, a noted exponent of one version of the “new perspective,” called the NIV’s translation of a certain phrase in Romans “appalling.” He felt it described God’s own righteousness, but the NIV rendered it as “a righteousness from God,” that is, one that would be imputed to a human being.  In the same lecture, Wright noted that the NIV, also in Romans, left out the word “or” before the question “is God the God of the Jews only?” This seemed to have been done in order to soften the impact of what would be, from the Reformation perspective, a sudden and difficult-to-explain shift from a discussion of individual salvation to the topic of how Jews and Gentiles together form the community of faith.

I don’t know exactly what article about the NIV and the “new perspective on Paul” my reader was referring to, but I suspect it may have been written before the latest update to the NIV was released in 2011, and so it was based on the 1984 second edition.  This most recent update includes changes to many of the passages that likely caused the concerns expressed in the article.  (I’m grateful to this post by T.C. Robinson on his blog New Leaven for much of the information that follows.)

For example, the statement whose translation N.T. Wright found “appalling” formerly read this way:  “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  In the latest update to the NIV,
it now reads, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  The previously missing “or” has  been placed in front of the statement that follows shortly afterwards: “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too?”

Within this same passage in Romans, the NIV now refers to God’s “righteousness” in a couple of places where it previously spoke of God’s “justice.”  And where the translation formerly said of Christ, “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood,” it now reads, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith.”

Other material that’s present in the Greek but formerly missing in the NIV is also now reflected in that translation.  As the discussion continues, Paul asks, according to the 1984 edition, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?”  This omits any representation of the phrase kata sarka, which follows the term propatēr (“forefather”).  The latest update to the NIV reads, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?”

It should be noted that some of these changes were actually made as early as the 2001 TNIV New Testament.  The TNIV was meant to be understood as the latest word from the NIV’s Committee on Bible Translation (CBT), and as such it was effectively the third edition of the NIV.  It would be folded into that translation as part of its 2011 update, which may be considered the fourth edition.  The TNIV NT changed “a righteousness from God” to “the righteousness of God,” for example, in the place we’ve been considering.

The TNIV also changed “through faith in his blood” to “through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.”  And it referred to Abraham as “the forefather of us Jews,” not simply as “our forefather,” beginning to reflect the way that proponents of the “new perspective” see the Jew-Gentile dynamic running through the book of Romans.  These changes all followed the TNIV into the NIV in its most recent update (with of us Jews becoming according to the flesh, a more literal rending of kata sarka).

This is not a comprehensive survey, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the exact reasoning behind the changes, but it certainly appears to me that the CBT has been working, in every update it has issued since the “new perspective” came to prominence, to ensure that their translation does reflect the most up-to-date scholarly understanding of Paul’s writings.  So I see no need to avoid the NIV based on the belief that it ignores the “new perspective on Paul.”

[Disclosure: I was a consulting editor for The Books of the Bible, which appeared first in the TNIV in 2007 and was reissued in the NIV in 2011.  I have also consulted with the CBT on specific projects such as the visual formatting of material like genealogies, lists, etc. in the NIV.]

A mosaic depicting St. Paul, Ravenna, Italy, late 5th century

How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 4)

Despite everything I’ve said so far in this series of posts to suggest that Judas may have sincerely repented and been saved after betraying Jesus, there’s one more place where the New Testament says that Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, and it seems to state unequivocally that he was lost, and that God in fact intended him to be.

In the gospel of John, during his prayer after the Last Supper, Jesus says about his disciples, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

This would, on the surface, appear to settle the issue.  However, when we dig a little deeper, we find that things are not quite so unequivocal.  The phrase that’s translated “the one doomed to destruction” in the NIV (compare NRSV “destined to be lost,” CEV “the one who had to be lost,” etc.) is literally “the son of perdition” in Greek (as in the KJV, RSV; ESV “son of destruction”). There’s actually a play on words in the original: “none of them was lost [apōleto] except the son of lost-ness [apōleia].”

Raymond Brown observes in his commentary on the gospel of John that “we are almost certainly dealing with a Semitism” here, that is, with a characteristic Hebrew way of speaking that has been reproduced in the Greek.  This idiom, “the son of,” appears in other places in the New Testament, for example, when Jesus nicknames James and John the “sons of thunder” because of their tempestuous personalities, or when the apostles nickname Joseph the Levite “Barnabas,” or “son of encouragement,” because of his generosity and help. In other words, in Hebrew, to be the “son of” something means to be characterized by that thing.

“Son of perdition” is such a distinctive phrase that it shouldn’t be hard to find the Scripture that Jesus says is being fulfilled here. The problem is, the phrase “son of perdition” (presumably ben shachat in Hebrew) appears nowhere in the Old Testament. And so no biblical scholar has, to my knowledge, pointed to any specific passage that Jesus purportedly had in mind when he spoke of Scripture regarding the “son of perdition” being fulfilled.

Rather, at least some scholars argue that Jesus is referring back to the Scripture he quoted earlier at the Last Supper, “He who shared my bread has turned against me,” as the one that is being fulfilled in this “son of perdition.”  (I discuss this other case of “fulfillment” in this post.)

But let me offer another alternative. The phrase “except the son of perdition” may actually be an aside or qualifier, and that the Scripture that is really being fulfilled is one about none of the other disciples being lost.  In other words, I think the passage should read something like this: “None has been lost (except the one who was lost of his own inclination), so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

The idea that no one and nothing can cause someone to be lost whom Jesus has saved is a theme that runs throughout the gospel of John, as Brown also documents in his commentary at this point.  Early on, in his interview with Nicodemus, Jesus says that “God . . . gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [i.e. be lost, apōlētai].”  After feeding the five thousand and revealing himself as the “bread of life,” Jesus declares, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose [apolesō] none of all those he has given me.”  Later on, at the Festival of Dedication, after Jesus has identified himself as the “good shepherd,” he says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish [apolōntai]; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

There’s a strong suggestion later in the gospel of John that the “fulfillment” in view in Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper indeed has to do with his power to preserve and protect all who trust in him. When the soldiers, led by Judas, come to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane, Jesus tells them, “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” John then notes, “This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: I have not lost one of those you gave me.'”

There is certainly a broad Old Testament background to the idea that like a good shepherd, the Lord will protect and preserve His whole flock. The background is so broad that no one passage needs to be singled out, but statements like these are likely among those in mind as “fulfilled” by Jesus in his protection of his own: in Jeremiah, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture“; in Micah, “I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together . . . like a flock in its pasture.”

So we may conclude once again that Judas, as a specific individual, betraying Jesus was not an integral part of the unfolding of God’s plan, as understood through the fulfillment of Scripture.  Nevertheless, we must find it significant that Jesus refers to Judas as a “son of perdition,” when “perishing” (the same root in Greek) is contrasted so directly in John’s gospel with having “eternal life.”  Even if Judas being a “son of perdition” isn’t a fulfillment of Scripture, isn’t it evidence that Judas was indeed lost?

I hope to explore that question further in a future post. However, for the time being, because of personal responsibilities I will not be able to add any new posts to this blog for a while.  But stay tuned, as I hope to resume writing at some point in the future.

Did Jesus forgive Judas?

Q. Did Jesus forgive Judas, or was he damned to hell?

There’s no question in my mind that Jesus forgave Judas.  On the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  This applied to everyone who was responsible for his crucifixion—not just the squad of Roman soldiers who actually put him on the cross, but also the crowds who shouted “Crucify him!”, the religious and political leaders who conspired against him, and yes, even Judas who betrayed him. Indeed, Jesus’ words also apply to all of us, whose sins put him on the cross.

The real question is whether Judas accepted the forgiveness of Jesus and so was saved.  I’d like to argue that he might have been.  I realize this is not the majority view among Christians. (In the Inferno, for example, Dante put Judas in the very mouth of Satan, in the lowest circle of hell!)  But hear me out.

The Bible tells us that once Jesus had been condemned to death, “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’” This, to me, sounds like genuine repentance.  There is open and specific confession of sin, and there is restitution—what John the Baptist once called “fruit worthy of repentance.”  If Judas had not been genuinely repentant, I don’t think he would have returned the money he got for betraying Jesus. But apparently Judas had not expected that the Jewish leaders would attempt, successfully in the end, to have Jesus put to death. He had only thought he was delivering him to arrest and detention. When he saw where his actions had led, he repented.

This, at least is the reading of many English translations—that Judas “repented.” (The KJV, ASV, RSV, NRSV, Good News Translation, and several others have this reading.)  But other English Bibles suggest instead that while Judas “was seized with remorse” (NIV) or “changed his mind” (ESV), he didn’t actually repent, he just felt regret.

The Greek term is metamelomai, and it does seem to mean something like “regret” or “change one’s mind” when it is used in 2 Corinthians (“if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it”) and Hebrews (“The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind”).  However, it clearly means “repent” when it is used a little earlier in the gospel of Matthew. Shortly before the passage about Judas, Matthew quotes Jesus as telling the chief priests and elders, “John [the Baptist] came to you to show you the way of righteousness,” but “you did not repent and believe him.”  (This is the NIV’s translation of the term there.)  So a good case can be made that Judas did repent of his sin of betraying Jesus, that he confessed it, and that he sought to make what restitution he could.

Unfortunately, the chief priests and elders, whose appointed role was to help shepherd repentant sinners like him back into the fold, turned him away, saying, “So what? That’s your problem.” In order to accept Judas’s confession, they would have had to admit that it was just as wrong for them to have conspired to put Jesus to death, but their pride and vested interests did not allow them to do this. When Judas did not receive the spiritual counsel and restoration that he was seeking and desperately needed, in despair he went out and hanged himself.  But we should be very careful not to conclude that his suicide proves he went to hell in the end.  People tragically commit suicide when they lose all hope–not when they lose all faith.

And so I believe there is enough in the gospel narratives about Judas to conclude that he may have been a sincerely repentant sinner whom the religious leaders of his day unfortunately failed.  But God knows what was ultimately in his heart, and He will judge him on that basis.  One vital lesson for us is never to become so compromised by sin and pride ourselves that we cannot show the way to someone who, whether genuinely repentant or merely remorseful to begin with, might be led back to God through wise and compassionate counsel.

Some may read this post and wonder, “But didn’t Jesus and the apostles say it was predicted in Scripture that Judas would betray Jesus and be lost? Doesn’t that settle the question?”  I’ll take up that concern in my next post. Rembrandt, Judas Returning the Thirty Silver Pieces

Does Paul’s argument that we are “in Adam” prove that Adam was a real historical individual?

Q. Tim Keller makes the argument that when Paul says we are “in Christ” or “in Adam,” he is talking about being in federation or covenant with them, meaning that their actions are essentially attributed to us. He then asks how we could be in federation with someone who never existed, and he concludes that Adam and Eve must have been real historical figures.  What do you think of this?

Let me say first that I have tremendous respect for Tim Keller as biblical interpreter, teacher, and pastor, so I hope that nothing I write here will be taken to disparage in any way his excellent ministry.

Personally, however, I do not believe it is necessary to conclude from Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians (“as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive”) and Romans (“as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous”) that the human race must have begun with a single, directly created individual named Adam.  And I believe I can say this on biblical grounds.

It could well be argued that in 1 Corinthians and Romans, Paul is indeed envisioning Adam as a specific historical individual.  I believe that to understand the Bible’s meaning, we must carefully consider the immediate context first, and the larger canonical context only second.  But once we do place Paul’s comments about Adam and Christ within the framework of the entire Scriptures, I think we can justifiably understand the phrase “in Adam” to mean “member of the human race,” rather than limiting it to “descendant of this named individual.”

This is because the Hebrew word ‘adam is used in an intriguing variety of ways in the book of Genesis, where it figures prominently in the opening narratives.  Sometimes it seems indeed to be the name of a single historical individual, as in this statement:  “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.”  But in other contexts (in fact, in the immediately preceding statement), the term refers more generally to humanity as created in the image of God.  Note how ‘adam in this case takes both singular and plural pronouns, and embraces both male and female:

“When God created ‘adam, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘adam when they were created.”

Elsewhere in the book of Genesis, the term ‘adam refers to the growing human race.  The statement translated in the NIV as “when human beings began to increase in number on the earth” is more literally in Hebrew “when the ‘adam began to be numerous upon the face of the ground.”

So in light of the use of the term in the book of Genesis, I understand ‘adam to mean essentially the human race, at whatever stage of its expansion may be in view.  By putting Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians and Romans in conversation with the Genesis narratives, I understand his phrase “in Adam” to mean being a member of the human race.

I feel that I can do this fairly because I don’t think Paul’s argument depends on Adam being an individual who performed certain actions that are then attributed to us.  At least as I understand the way covenants work in the Bible, if A has a covenant with B, and C is “in” B (in covenant terms), then all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that B has with respect to A also extend to C.  But it is not considered that C has personally done for A everything that B has.

For example, David took care of Mephibosheth because he was the son of Jonathan, with whom David had a covenant of friendship, protection, and provision that extended to all of their descendants.  But it was not considered that Mephibosheth had personally performed all of the acts of friendship and kindness for David that Jonathan himself had.  Mephibosheth was rather the extended beneficiary of David’s response to those actions.

In the same way, as members of the human race, we are alienated from God because of the disobedience of our race.  Mercifully, I am reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, if I join through faith in his covenant relationship with the Father.  But even then it is not considered that I have personally lived a sinless life and died on a cross for the sins of the world.  Jesus alone did those things.  Rather, I am included in the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that come with my covenant identification with Jesus, which include both forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God, and a duty to offer the same kind of loving obedience that Jesus did.

So, in short, I do not believe that Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians and Romans require Adam to have been a historical individual.  We need to make our mind up about that question on different grounds, and I think it’s fair and reasonable to bring scientific accounts of human origins into conversation with the Bible as we do so.  As I’ve tried to explain here, I think the language of the Bible can accommodate this.

What is the definition of “soul”?

Q. Someone recently asked me to define “soul.” I gave an answer but I’d also like to hear what you have to say.

I would say that a person’s “soul” is the totality of everything in them that is not their physical body–that is, their mind, will, emotions, etc., working together as a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

There’s almost a definition of the “soul” (Hebrew nefesh) along these lines in the poetic parallelism at the start of Psalm 103:  “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, praise His holy name.”  The NIV translates this second phrase “all my inmost being,” and I think that’s a good way to think about the soul.

The “soul” in biblical terms is equivalent to what we often call the “self” today.  We find the psalmists especially addressing their “souls” in what we recognize as “self-talk.”  For example, in the chorus that occurs three times in Psalm 42-43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? . . . Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.”

There’s some debate in Christian theology about whether the soul is mortal, and so dies with the body and is resurrected with the body, or whether the soul is immortal, living on after death.  I discuss that question in this post.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you. And may we all be inspired by the example of the psalmists and in the most difficult times talk to our souls (ourselves) to encourage them to hope in God, looking forward to the time when we will see His work on our behalf and praise Him for it.

Does the reading of “sky” for “heavens” in the Genesis creation account rule out the creation of invisible, spiritual things?

This question was asked as a follow-up to my post entitled “In the beginning, God created the sky and the land.

Q. I had never before noticed the relationships between the three pairs of days. Laying out the text in such a manner as to highlight these relationships is helpful. Thanks.

I wonder, though, whether the Hebrew word which I will transliterate as shemayim, traditionally translated in this passage as “heavens” and here translated “sky” (in contrast to “land”), must mean only “sky” in this passage. After all, the word translated “Spirit” also can mean mere “wind.”

What if we read the word translated “sky” to include both English meanings contained by the one Hebrew word? Could the meaning include not only the concepts that contrast with “land”(that is, sky), but also the concepts which contrast with that realm in which we humans are grounded and can touch (that is, heaven)?

My denomination’s catechism cites the Genesis creation account to support the assertion from the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…”, and goes on to explain the meaning of “heaven” to include the unseen, which it identifies as the spiritual part of God’s creation.

I do note, however, that on Day 4 the sky is populated with items that are not spiritual (sun, moon, stars). Not, say, angels.

Limiting this scripture to refer merely to “sky” seems to diminish its meaning from that claimed by the catechism’s commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. Any thoughts on how I might reconcile this reading of the beginning of Genesis and my understanding of the historic catholic creeds of the church?

Thank you very much for this thoughtful question.  First, let me say that I do not feel that my reading and translation of the Genesis creation account limit its meaning to God creating the sky and nothing beyond it, whether physical (outer space) or spiritual (angels and the heavenly realm itself).

Rather, I would say that I see the Genesis author proclaiming God as the Maker of the entire created universe and depicting that creation as it was then perceived and understood.  We can join in this very same proclamation even though we would depict the creation much more extensively, beyond what appears to an earth-bound observer.

This is true not just of the visible, physical part of creation, but also of the invisible, spiritual part, because the Hebrew biblical writers tended to see the shemayim that God created as the location where God then established His throne.  Psalm 11 says, for example, that “the Lord‘s throne is in heaven” (shemayim).  Psalm 103 says similarly, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens” (once again shemayim). These are just two of many examples that could be given.

However, this is not to say that the Hebrew word shemayim had two different meanings, “the sky” (in which we would now include “outer space”) and “heaven” (the abode of God and the angels).  Rather, the biblical writers were envisioning one physical place in which both the sun, moon, and stars, and the throne of God, were all located.

While it is true, as you noted, that some Hebrew words can mean more than one thing–ruach, to cite your example, means both Spirit and wind, as well as breath–that is not the case with shemayim.  It does not mean two different things, but one single thing, the physical realm above the earth.

But this is not an insurmountable problem.  I would simply make the same move as in the case of “outer space” and say that we now understand today that what the earth-bound observer who is speaking in the Genesis creation account understood as a single entity is actually a more complex entity.  Shemayim, we now realize, encompasses both sky and space, and since it is the site of God’s throne, it also encompasses “heaven.”  In this way we can see the Genesis creation account proclaiming God as the “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, once we translate the ancient understanding of the created universe into our own contemporary understanding.

(And I don’t doubt that centuries from now, our own limited understanding of the universe will have to be updated by later generations of believers!)

This photograph accompanied the text “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” on a recent Christian Post devotional. The photo, in my view, illustrates better what the Genesis author was envisioning than the “outer space” photos that often accompany that text.

Are dinosaurs described in the Bible, in the book of Job?

Q. I heard that dinosaurs are mentioned in Job. If so, can you explain?

In His second speech to Job at the end of the book of Job, the LORD mentions two powerful and fearsome creatures, behemoth and leviathan.  Some interpreters have taken these to be dinosaurs.  However, here’s what I say about them in my study guide to Job:

The LORD’s first speech from the storm addressed two important concerns arising from Job’s opening speech. The LORD countered what Job said he wanted to do—un-create the day of his birth—by depicting the glories of the creation thriving and pulsating with life. The LORD also spoke to why Job wished he’d never been born. Job felt that his life wasn’t worth living if there was no coherence between his most deeply held beliefs and his actual experiences. The LORD showed him that his experiences were in fact coherent with a more profound and mysterious vision of the world, in which the cause and explanation of events within the human sphere may lie outside that sphere and may never be completely understood. Job responded to this first speech by admitting how limited a grasp he had of the world’s workings.

But there is still one more concern from Job’s opening speech that the LORD must address. There’s a serious problem with how Job wanted to accomplish his purpose. He called on those who could “rouse Leviathan” to unleash this chaos monster against the day of his birth so it would no longer be an ordered, bounded period of time and would dissolve back into nothingness. In response, the LORD describes two fearsome animals, behemoth and leviathan, and uses them to represent the chaos monster. He tells Job that no one should be foolhardy enough to rouse them. He asks, in effect, “Are you sure you want to turn such forces loose against my ordered creation? Once you got them started, how would you ever stop them?”

I explain further in the guide:

The LORD illustrates the limitations of Job’s power by describing two great beasts, which he calls behemoth and leviathan. Many interpreters believe that these descriptions are initially of the hippopotamus and the crocodile, two fearsome river creatures known from the Nile in Egypt. Simply by comparison with these, Job has to admit the limits of his own power. But the LORD then draws an even stronger contrast. Halfway through the long depiction of leviathan, after a significant transition in which the LORD warns against rousing such beasts and mentions Job’s case against him, the portrait moves from realistic to mythological. Leviathan now takes on the characteristics of a fire-breathing dragon and comes to represent the chaos monster. As the speech ends, the LORD describes humans trying every weapon they have against this monster—swords, spears, arrows, stones, clubs, etc.—to no avail. Leviathan swims powerfully off into the deep unvanquished, leaving the seas “churning like a boiling cauldron” in his wake. So how does Job think he can rouse this monster but then get it to stop destroying God’s creation after it has turned only one day of the year into chaos?

But even though Job believes that the chaos monster can be called upon selectively to undo specific aspects of the creation, the LORD explains that even behemoth and leviathan are not his eternal enemies, existing independently of him and forever opposed to his purposes. Rather, they are magnificent creatures of his own design and are under his power. God says that as behemoth’s Maker he can “approach it with his sword,” and he refers to leviathan as a “creature.” “Everything under heaven belongs to me,” he tells Job. The universe is not a battlefield where two opposing forces are locked in perpetual combat. Ultimately God controls everything, even forces of destruction that people are powerless to resist.

In other words, the descriptions of behemoth and leviathan are not of dinosaurs.  They begin as poetic but realistic descriptions of actual animals, probably the hippopotamus and the crocodile, and they then move into mythological symbolism to make points that serve the larger themes of the book of Job.  I hope this explanation is helpful to you.

Gustave Doré, “The Destruction of Leviathan,” 1865